By Patrick Masell

The P-40, with the distinctive shark's mouth painted on its nose, has always been one of the most recognizable fighters of World War II. Yet few realize that it is also one of the most controversial. The Curtis P-40 is thought by many to have been slow and obsolete from its inception. Its role in the defense of the Pacific during the early years of the war has been minimized. The Warhawk was, in fact, a much better fighter than most observers believe.

There are three main reasons for this misconception. For one, the P-40 was based on an older aircraft, the P-36. The forward section and the liquid cooled Allison V-12 engine (V-1710) were new, but from the firewall to tail it was exactly the same as the P-36. Because of this, the P-40 is thought to have been obsolescent from its inception. Its naval contemporary, the F4F Wildcat (which is described as being a better opponent for the Zero by World War II magazine) was based on a biplane design! Of course, few authorities mention that. The P-36 airframe wasn't obsolete, merely proven successful. It was actually very sturdy. Secondly, newer fighters, including the P-38, P-47, and P-51 overshadowed it. Finally, its faults (and it had some--all aircraft do) were exaggerated to the point that it seemed impossible for the P-40 to succeed against any enemy aircraft. Although it couldn't out maneuver the Zero (the Warhawk's main foe in the Pacific Theater), neither could the Spitfire, Hurricane, Lighting, Thunderbolt, Mustang, Wildcat, or Corsair, but that is never mentioned.

The P-40 concept began life in 1937. It was at about this time that the United States government began to understand the position they were in. The Nazis were preparing to crush Europe and the Japanese were taking bites out of China. U.S. leaders realized that neutrality wouldn't last, and that the need for arms was great. Because of that the Army Air Corps issued a specification for a new fighter that could be produced quickly.

Several companies threw their hat in the ring with various aircraft designs. Curtiss offered their P-40 design; Lockheed came with their P-38 design, and Bell with the P-39. When Curtiss won the contract, the other companies created an uproar. They believed the P-40 was obsolescent, since much of it was based on an older design. As previously explained, from the firewall back it was the same as the previous P-36, but the engine and other vital components were new, which increased performance dramatically.

The Army wanted a sure-fire design. The twin-engine P-38 was too radical to be certain of success. It probably didn't help when the P-38 prototype crashed. One drawback to the P-38 was that it was not designed to be mass-produced. It was designed as a special purpose, high altitude interceptor. The P-38 simply could not be produced in sufficient quantity in time. Also, at the time, the Army did not foresee the need for great numbers of high altitude fighters that later became apparent. They thought a fighter's main role was ground support, and found the P-40 well suited for the job. Besides, if the Army had chosen the P-38, American pilots would have initially been outmatched in dogfights with the more nimble Japanese Zero, and probably taken as many losses as the P-40 did. In that case, I would be sticking up for the misunderstood Lockheed P-38!

Two myths about the P-40 were that it was slow and not maneuverable. Compared to later American and German aircraft with 400+ mph top speeds, a mere 345 mph at 15,000 feet (the top speed of the P-40C) doesn't seem that impressive. But remember, in 1940-41 the Warhawk's top speed essentially matched that of the Spitfire 1A (346 mph at 15,000 feet) and Bf-109E (348 mph at 14,560 feet), and surpassed the A6M-21 Zero (331 mph at 14,930 feet) and Hawker Hurricane II (327 mph at 18,000 feet).

The famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter was more maneuverable than the new Curtiss fighter was, and because of this people came to believe the P-40 couldn't out turn a hot air balloon. Of course they didn't take into account that the Zero was the most maneuverable fighter of the time. In fact, the P-40 proved in combat that it could out maneuver many of its rivals. Other positive attributes of the P-40 were good armor, firepower, roll rate, and dive speed, making it one of the best low altitude fighters of the war. Japanese pilots rated the Warhawk their most dangerous foe at low altitude. (They considered the P-38 Lightning best at high altitude and the F4U Corsair the best overall). The P-40's chief drawback was a slow climb rate, and climbing to escape an enemy was considered suicide.

Following its acceptance by the Army Air Corps in 1940, the P-40 was quickly produced and sent to several American air bases. There, the pilots were glad to get new aircraft. The British also received P-40s and matched it against the legendary Messerschmitt Bf-109. The Tomahawk (as the British called the early P-40 models--they named the later models Kittyhawk) did well in combat with the famous German fighter. Although it was a bit slower and outclassed in rate of climb, its good dive speed, superior armor, maneuverability, and armament made the Tomahawk a force to be reckoned with. The Germans felt that it was a more dangerous opponent than the Hawker Hurricane. In fact, the British wanted to replace their old Hurricanes with new P-40s. Other countries that operated P-40s (early P-40, B, and C export models were referred to as the Hawk 81A by Curtiss; later P-40D, E, K, and M export models were known as the Hawk 87A) included Canada, Russia (the USSR), Brazil, New Zealand, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, and China, among others.

The specifications for the numerous P-40E-1 of 1941 (also Hawk 87A-4 and Kittyhawk IA), which are similar to the entire series of P-40E, K, and M models, are as follows (taken from The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough): Max speed, 362 mph at 15,000 feet; Time to 5,000 feet, 2.4 minutes; Max range, 850 miles at 207 mph (with drop tank); Armament, six .50 inch (12.7mm) wing mounted machine guns; Empty weight, 6,900 pounds; Loaded weight, 8,400 pounds; Span, 37 feet 4 inches; Length, 31 feet 9 inches; Height, 12 feet 4 inches; Wing area, 236 square feet.

On December 7, 1941 a large Japanese air armada attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, and all of the nearby airfields. This is where the P-40 first defended American soil. Unfortunately, few American fighters were able to get into the air; most were destroyed on the ground. Two pilots, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, managed to take off and shot down several Japanese planes. From this time onward a great responsibility fell on the P-40 pilots' shoulders. In order for the U.S. to win the war, air superiority must be wrested from the Japanese. Otherwise, their bombers would be able to fly unopposed over Allied ships and territory. I've read descriptions of the Warhawk that would lead you to believe that it was the worst possible fighter for the job. Yet, it was able to do just that for the first two years of the Pacific war, and continued to help do so until the end of the war.

The P-40's first fame came at the hands of the now legendary Flying Tigers, a group of American mercenaries who volunteered to defend China against the Japanese. Well before the war reached America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that the U.S. would eventually be drawn into it. Most Americans felt strongly about staying neutral, but Roosevelt wanted to aid the Allied powers against the fascist juggernaut. However, an election was coming and his toughest rival was a strong isolationist. Political expediency demanded that he promise continued neutrality (sadly, not the last time an American president would deceive the electorate). The A.V.G. (American Volunteer Group) was a way around this. The program was to send volunteers from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine air corps to China, along with U.S. fighters, and establish three squadrons to combat the threat from the rising sun. Colonel Claire Lee Chennault headed the operation. He pieced together a fighter group and shipped them to China with 99 (a crane mishap destroyed the 100th) new P-40 (actually export model Hawk 81A-2) aircraft originally intended for British use. Aircraft numbers 1 through 33 formed The Adams and Eves, 34 through 66 made up The Panda Bears and 67 to 99 created the most famous of the three squadrons, The Hells Angels.

During the following weeks Chennault ran his crews ragged, training them to fly and maintain the P-40. He understood its shortcomings, mainly inferior turn rate and a slow rate of climb, and taught his men to maximize its effectiveness by using the P-40's superior top and diving speed to hit and run. He also preached fighting in pairs, rather than in Vics of three or singly, as Japanese doctrine taught. It took time, but by early December 1941 the A.V.G., with ferocious looking shark's jaws painted on their P-40's (an idea copied from the RAF's No. 112 squadron), was ready for action. By this time 33 planes had already been lost, mostly due to pilot error.

Their first big chance came on Dec. 8, a day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. They attacked ground targets and engaged enemy aircraft in defense of the Burma Road, China's only supply line to the West. For the next 6 months this rag-tag band of volunteer pilots racked up an amazing record against overwhelming enemy numbers, earning the A.V.G. the nickname "Flying Tigers".

On July 4, 1942 the Flying Tiger's contracts were due to expire. After that, the U. S. Army intended to take over and make this back into a military group. Nearly all of the volunteers objected to this, including Col. Chennault, who tried to prevent it. But there was no reasoning with the Army; so on July 4th the group that had single-handedly defended the skies over China was disbanded. Most of the Flying Tigers went back to their old units. Only five pilots stayed with Chennault to help train the newcomers. The records show that after only 6 months of combat the Flying Tigers had shot down 297 enemy aircraft confirmed, and another 153 probable, for only 12 planes lost in air combat. But 57 of their original 99 P-40's were no longer air worthy due to combat damage, pilot error, maintenance problems, or just being worn out.

The dissolution of the A.V.G. was by no means the end of the P-40's involvement in China. The Army sent updated models of the P-40 and fresh pilots to form the China Air Task Force (CATF). Chennault (now a Brigadier General) tried his best to make it the most effective outfit possible. When the new pilots arrived in China, they found themselves in a difficult position. They were isolated in a remote theater, with the giant Himalayan Mountains to their backs, which allowed only a trickle of supplies to come through. Also, they were outnumbered more than 3 to 1 by the Japanese. The CATF's entire complement of Warhawks did not equal the number of planes assigned to just one of the Japanese airbases in the area. In nearly all of their engagements they found themselves heavily outnumbered. In one such engagement, 21 P-40s tangled with 45 Oscars. The result was 27 enemy aircraft shot down with no losses. It was one of the greatest victories enjoyed by the CATF. But eventually the China Air Task Force was defeated, not by Japanese planes, but by a lack of supplies, spare parts, and the spread of disease. At the end few of their P-40s were even capable of flying. Yet by the time it was disbanded, on the 19th of March 1943, the CATF had shot down 149 enemy aircraft with another 86 probable, for only 16 losses.

Records of success in combat like these were not isolated to the Pacific Theater. In Italy the 325 Fighter Group, commonly know as "The Checker-Tailed Clan" amassed one of the best kill to loss ratios of any fighter group in the European Theater. With a yellow and black checkerboard adorning the tail of their P-40s (and later P-47s and P-51s), they flew many sorties against more numerous German forces, and won most of the time. In 1943 the 325th won two major engagements. On July 1, 22 checker-tailed P-40s were making a fighter sweep over southern Italy when they were jumped by 40 Bf-109s. After an intense air battle, the result was half of the German aircraft shot down for the loss of a single P-40. There was a similar situation on the 30th of July, again over Italy, when 35 Bf-109s ambushed 20 P-40s. On this occasion, 21 German fighters were shot down, again for the loss of a single P-40. Because the pilots of the 325th were trained to maximize the P-40's strengths and minimize its weaknesses, it became a lethal opponent for the German fighters. The final record of "The Checker-Tailed Clan's" P-40s was 135 Axis planes shot down (96 were Bf-109s), for only 17 P-40s lost in combat.

These are just three examples of the Warhawks effectiveness in air-to-air combat. Consider the New Zealand Air Force's record: 99 confirmed kills and 14 possible, for only 20 P-40s lost in combat.

Still, by 1944 the P-40 was being supplanted by newer fighters, and production of the final (and most numerous) version, the P-40N, ceased in December of that year. By 1945 all European Warhawk squadrons had switched to either the Mustang or Thunderbolt, and the only active P-40s were in the China-Burma-India Theater. Altogether, a staggering 13,738 P-40s were built during WW II, making it the third most numerous American fighter of the war (slightly behind the P-47 and P-51, but ahead of the P-38 and all others).

After the war, the Truman Committee investigated why the P-40 was used until the end of the war, even when higher performance fighters were available. They concluded that the Army did not continue to order P-40s due to "outside influence." Perhaps the obvious answer is the right one: the USAAF ordered so many P-40s because they did a heck of a good job!

The Second World War ended in September of 1945, but the P-40's career did not. Although the U.S. Army Air Force retired the P-40, it continued to serve with the air forces of smaller nations into the early 50s. Eventually, age and changing times got to the old war-horse and, like all of its piston-engine peers, it had to yield the skies to the jet age.

It is unfortunate that, even with all its victories, the P-40 appears on many people's "worst fighters of WW II" list. At best it is considered mediocre. Even though it served brilliantly, frequently fighting against the odds, and amassed an exceptional kill to loss ratio, it is still often thought of as a slow, unmanuverable, and obsolescent fighter. It fought in the Pacific against overwhelming enemy numbers, flying in some of the harshest conditions to be found on earth, and held the line for two years, until newer planes could be brought into service. After all that, it defended other (smaller) countries for several more years. Because of its achievements, I feel that the rugged, dependable, gravely misunderstood P-40 deserves to be considered one of the most successful fighters of World War II.

In these times of supersonic jets firing guided missiles at targets many miles away, the Warhawks of WW II, armed only with short range machine guns and their pilots' skill, seem almost quaint. Although collectors restore these old war birds, and a few lucky people at air shows occasionally get to see one of them fly, it will never be possible to restore the glory of the days when they were the Tigers of the sky.

Back to Naval & Military History

Copyright 2001 by Patrick Masell and Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.